Freedom and Its Supposed Liabilities

Yes, indeed, when men and women are free, one apparent liability that cannot be avoided is that they can do what's wrong, as well as what's right. Freedom makes both good and bad behavior possible with impunity, so long as other people aren't robbed of their liberty in the process.

And this upsets a lot of folks. They keep harping about the fact that freedom isn't going to produce a perfect society, with everyone doing everything right and all achieving happiness or bliss in the end.

The critics think this is a liability of a free society, as if some other system had it over it by managing what the free society cannot manage, namely, guarantee virtue, even perfection. But such a system of laws does not exist, either as a historical phenomenon or as the product of anyone's political imagination. The truth is that the complaint that freedom has this liability is completely phony. No alternative is any better and indeed the rest are all worse.

Just consider this. Yes, in a free society the laws aren't going to stop people from being stupid, irresponsible, impolite, greedy, gluttonous or anything else that most of us would consider personally wrongheaded, unethical, even at times out and out vicious ' say when a friend betrays another. No such conduct can be banned in a free society, true enough.

But two things must be kept in mind as one considers this plain fact. One is that in a free society the wrong-headedness of people tends to turn on them, not on others. Because of the institution of private property rights, free men and women all have what the economists so quaintly call the 'exit option.' They can leave the purview of anyone who is being reckless, irresponsible, mean, impolite, or self-destructive. Sure, at times it is difficult to part from such people, especially if they have been close to one, if they are members of one's family. But because strong fences exist between us in a free society'-we, as adults at least, need to choose to be with others for an association to exist, we cannot be lumped together by tyrants or even the majority'-in the end we can leave those who mess up to stew in their own juices. And this clearly will encourage them, as well as that's possible, to mend their ways. When one's misconduct produces the boomerang effect, that's the best chance for it to be extinguished. No guarantee, mind you, but the best chance.

The second thing is that any effort to repair the ill doings of people by giving some other people power to step in cannot but have very bad consequences. From the time of Aristotle it has been evident that the dream of a great paternal leader must be moderated by the undeniable temptation such a position produces for despotism. Benevolent dictators are nearly nonexistent and the few monarchs or chiefs who did behave well did so for just a little while before they, too, fell prey to the lure of running roughshod over others. So, whatever gains one might make by prohibiting men and women to act badly will be lost when those who have the power to order others about do their own bad deeds. Just look at the Hitlers, Stalins, Saddam Husseins and all the other more or less draconian tyrants in history and our own times'-including the Islamic leaders of Iran today and the corrupt authoritarian rulers, secular and religious, of the past. They offer indisputable cases of how the effort to make people good backfires and makes the good-makers so bad that the gambit routinely turns out to be a very bad one. So does the plethora of reports of political and police corruption among those entrusted with making others good! It is not for nothing that Lord Acton's remark that 'Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely,' has become a clich', which is to say an obvious and oft-repeated truth.

When it is remembered that bad conduct that's contained has the best chance of being abandoned, and that in trying to ban, by coercive force, the bad choices men and women may make, we invite far worse consequences than what these bad choices produce. Perhaps those clamoring for limitations on liberty for the sake of goodness and virtue will see the error of their proposals.

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Tibor R. Machan's picture
Columns on STR: 70

Tibor Machan is a professor of business ethics and Western Civilization at Chapman University in Orange, Calif., and recent author of Neither Left Nor Right: Selected Columns (Hoover Institution Press, 2004).  He is a research fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University.